Cocktail 101: Garnish for Success
Rethink drink garnishes and learn to use them like a pro
Fashion aficionados say that accessories make the outfit. A suit is just a suit, but add a well-coordinated tie, pocket square, and a quality watch, and now it's a statement. The same wisdom holds when garnishing a cocktail. Garnishes add visual flair and sophistication to a drink sure, but garnishes aren't just for show, and this article will explain why.
The Full Sensory Cocktail
In 2001, Frédéric Brochet embarrassed wine snobs all over the world when he colored a white wine red with an odorless dye and asked a panel of wine experts to describe its taste. The connoisseurs overwhelmingly described the dyed wine the same way they would a real red wine, rather than using descriptors associated with white wine. These so-called "experts" were fooled into missing the most fundamental distinction in wine flavor, red or white, simply because it looked different.
Sight is not technically part of taste, but the way we perceive our food or a cocktail alters the way we interpret its taste. You could drink a martini out of a red solo cup, but would it be the same? This phenomenon doubly applies to smell. For a fun experiment, plug your nose with your fingers and chew a mint leaf. Does it taste like mint or does it taste like rubber? Now unplug your nose and taste the difference.
The moral of the story is that to our brains, "taste" is a fusion of all the senses into a single sensation. Bartenders have long known how vital garnishing is to the drink experience. The first written mention of garnishes came in the legendary Jerry Thomas' 1862 Bartender's Guide, where he prescribed a lemon peel for his drinks. Garnishing is an essential skill for the home bartender, and these are some of the most common techniques.
Citrus peels are one of the simplest garnishes to use and one of the most impactful when it comes to flavor. Citrus peels are full of oils that add an unmistakable aroma to a drink. Twisting the peel or squeezing it will "express" these oils in the drink and add a citrus punch. To quickly cut a peel for garnish, grab a citrus peeler and pull across the rind while holding the end of the peel with your thumb. You want to leave as much of the "pith" behind; this is the bitter white layer between the fruit and the peel. Once you have your peel, you can twist it, squeeze it, or rub it over the rim of the glass and toss in. Citrus peels are best in amber liquor cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carre, and the Sidecar but it's a welcome addition in gin drinks as well
Lime Wedges and Wheels
A simple slice of lime is well-known in a margarita, and this is for a reason, it can help mask some of the alcoholic vapors, and it balances out the sweetness. Latin inspired drinks are made with some strong liquors like tequila and rum, so cocktails are usually made sweeter. Adding a lime wedge adds a little bitterness to the drink while also helping mask this strong smell, leading to an overall better drink experience. Try it with a Margarita, Mojito, or Daiquiri.
You might have seen mint used in a drink before. There's nothing quite like freshly picked herbs adorning a great drink, but mint isn't the only herb that fits the bill. Rosemary, thyme, basil, and even lavender can all add a beautiful aroma to enhance the drink. What herb should you use and when? It comes down to personal preference. Mint compliments almost any drink well, rosemary is savory so is a great addition in sweet or citrusy drinks like a sour, and basil is more delicate in texture making it a good companion to gin. There's no limit to what herbs you can use and when. Grow a garden and see where it takes you!
In the bartending community, cherries are divisive. Some bartenders swear off them altogether, and others call them necessary for certain drinks like the Manhattan. This bitter feud is the result of those cheap, chemically flavored maraschino cherries that you probably had on a sundae when you were a kid. Those bright red cherries despite the nostalgia are full of artificial preservatives and hazardous red dye. Despite this, some bars continue to use them in their drinks because they are cheap. Be smarter and buy yourself good cocktail cherries like these Luxardo cherries. They are expensive, but they are also natural, decadent, and full of flavor. These are real cherries, and fake maraschinos don't even come close. Drop one in a Manhattan or a Last word and see the difference.
If you didn't eat your vegetables growing up maybe now that you're an adult its time to work them into your diet, in cocktail form. Veggies are by no means a typical garnish, but certain cocktails aren't the same without; namely the Martini, Gibson, and Bloody Mary. The olive in a Martini and the cocktail onion in a Gibson help impart a savory flavor and some salinity that significantly alters taste. Bloody Maries are known for their absurd garnish additions ranging from your classic celery stick to full on grilled cheese meals. You can be as ridiculous or as simple as you want, but at a minimum, celery and a pickle are essential to help balance the spiciness of a Bloody Mary.
Sometimes a garnish is all about the visual appeal of a drink. I prefer to use edible, garden fresh ingredients in my cocktails, but if inspiration strikes, I like to improvise. Having a garden party with friends? Go ahead and grab a flower to adorn your drink. Sitting poolside and want to feel like you're on a tropical island? Pick up that cocktail umbrella and enjoy your Caribbean getaway. Decorative garnishes are a great way to add playfulness to a drink or to support a theme for an event. I encourage people not to overdo it but make a drink that makes you happy.
You don't just taste a good drink you experience it will all of your senses. Garnishes are essential additions that can not only alter the flavor of a drink but also the way you feel when you drink it. Experiment and find combinations that work for you, but never underestimate the power of a proper garnish.